I recently had the good fortune to drop by the British Embassy for a viewing of filmmaker Michael Nash’s most recent film Climate Refugees. After the event, I had a chance to catch up with Nash and it was clear that he was someone interesting that we at the Natural Security blog needed to talk to. Here’s what I asked and what he had to say:
Daniel Saraceno (DS): First, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to answer some questions for the Natural Security team and those following the Natural Security Blog. After the screening of Climate Refugees at the British Embassy you made some interesting comments on how you came to learn of the national security implications of climate change featured in the film. Would you speak to how the project’s focus had changed from an environmental and humanitarian film to one featuring climate change’s potential as a threat multiplier?
Michael Nash (MN): Originally, in any treatment or outline that I created for the documentary Climate Refugees, never did the two words “climate” and “war” ever go together. It was never part of the story. It wasn’t until I started interviewing scholars, politicians, military personnel and scientist that the national security implications of climate change really started to emerge. In the early part of 2007, after interviewing Senator John Kerry and Peter Schwartz, I quickly began to wrap my arms around the intersection that civilization was confronting. The collision of over population, over consumption, lack of resources and our changing climate. The effect: mass global migration of climate refugees. We have always migrated in search of food and water, but now, there is no more real estate; people are crossing borders for survival. This is something new. Something the world has never dealt with.
I interviewed several military personal, from Generals to consultants. This is really becoming a big issue that is now on their radar. In September of 2009, the New York Times did an article on the subject of climate change being a national security issue; it was the first report I had read that really endorsed what we had stated in the film. People crossing borders based on our changing climate and the responsibility of military humanitarian mission are going to be part of our future.
DS: A very interesting debate arose in both the context of the film, as well as the discussion that followed the viewing, regarding the recognition of environmentally induced migrants as official refugees. Fears erupted over what it could mean to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees signed in Geneva, as well as the humanitarian costs of not providing some level of international recognition and assistance to these populations. What is your opinion in this debate? Do you find that the evidence is more compelling in one direction over the other?
MN: This issue is so massive in size, so complex politically and internationally. I should state that the UN officials term these victims Environmentally Induced Migrants. In my film we call them Climate Refugees. Defining this group of 25 million plus is extremely important to the legal action that will encompass their rights. If you call them “refugees” and argue that they have been persecuted based on man causing the climate to change, then they have a right to the asylum giving to political or religiously persecuted refugees. If you include them in the Geneva Convention, many believe the convention would implode, and no one wants that to happen. Currently there are more climate refugees than political or religious refugees in the world. The numbers that experts are predicting in the near future are alarming yet not one single international law exist to protect these people. This is a storm we need to get in front of, a storm that will greatly alter the world we now live in.
DS: Having traveled to numerous locations in the course of making this film, was there any one location that you were struck most by the affect climate change had, or has the potential to have?
MN: The entire world really seems to be affected by our changing climate. The places most affected seem to be the poor countries. Places like Bangladesh, parts of China and India, Indonesia, South America, the small pacific islands and the northwest coast of Alaska. What people need to realize is, climate change isn’t 50 -100 years away and about polar bears, its today and currently effecting 10s of millions of people. It’s all about water, too much in some places and to little water in other places.
DS: You spoke with many of the same people whose works we here on the Natural Security blog look at. Having conducted hours of interviews that did not make it into the film, was there a particular interview, featured in Climate Refuges or left on the cutting floor, that you feel had offered good insight into what we call Natural Security? In particular, I’m interested in the scenes of former Vice President Gore, which you chose to cut due to concerns over partisanship.
MN: I had archival footage of him talking about the national security implication of 100 million climate refugees. In the end that footage did not make the final cut. We shot over 250 hours of footage, there are always tough choices. I interviewed Ret. General Claudia Kennedy (first female 3 star General) and really focused on the military aspects of how climate change is changing the military. She was wonderful, and really painted a picture that we all should listen to: how climate change is currently becoming a large part of our national security. She stated this is now; this isn’t something that we will deal with in 50 years. Unfortunately, the film roll had technical issues. So I couldn’t use it. She really had powerful testimony.
DS: You had mentioned that Climate Refugees was featured in the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen. Do you expect the phenomena of environmentally induced migrants to be featured as a topic of discussion at this year’s much anticipated follow up conference in Cancun?
MN: Yes I do. In fact, several organizations have already asked if they could screen the film in Mexico. Look, this is the human face of climate change. It’s really hard to turn your head the other way. People are suffering to the likes of which we’ve never thought possible. These people won’t cross borders for tin or copper, but for food and water, for survival, they will cross whatever borders are needed.